A great story, well told, has the power to leave a lasting impression and even inspire action. And when done right, storytelling can do powerful things for firm marketing. Learn about three classic storytelling frameworks and how to use them to market your firm.
About the Episode
Storytelling is a term that has been tossed around in the marketing community for a while now. But it has the power to do incredible things when it comes to marketing your firm—when it’s done right. In this episode, Jason and Jeff dive into three (of seven) classic storytelling frameworks and how they should be applied to marketing a firm. The content for this episode comes from Rattleback’s article, Improving Your Thought Leadership with Storytelling, which shares all seven classic storytelling archetypes and how to apply them to thought leadership marketing. The article was inspired by Christopher Booker’s book, The Seven Basic Plots.
The three story types shared in this episode include:
– Overcoming the Monster (7:38)
– Rags to Riches (14:05)
– The Quest (22:23)
Join us next week to learn about the other four frameworks.
Resources mentioned in this episode:
The Case For Storytelling in Thought Leadership Marketing
Improving Your Thought Leadership with Storytelling
The Hero with a Thousand Faces
The Power of Myth
Thought Leadership Strategy—An Amazon Series not an Amazon Station
The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories
The BS of PS
The 20 Biggest Brand Mistakes Firms Make (And How to Avoid Them)
Other episodes mentioned in this episode:
Jason Mlicki: Okay, Jeff. So today we are going to talk about storytelling. I know, don’t roll your eyes. So storytelling is the new brand, it’s the new annoying buzzword in the marketing community that has been bantered around so much over the last few years, and we’re going to wade and do it nonetheless because I think we’re going to take a little different take on this.
As you know, we’ve written a series of articles about storytelling, really about applying storytelling to thought leadership marketing, and really maybe broader to professional services marketing in general. And so we’re going to wade into some of the thinking and some of those articles together. So let me punt it to you. Where do you want to start, because you’ve read some of the things we’ve written about this recently. Where do you think is the most interesting place to start?
Jeff McKay: Well when you threw this subject our way, I did kind of hurrump.
Jason Mlicki: Is that a word by the way? That’s not a word.
Jeff McKay: Yeah. I don’t know, where I come from, it’s a word. If not, I have the latitude to make it. We talked on one of our podcasts about how marketing ruins everything and how they jump on idea and run it into the ground, and I think storytelling is one of those things. So I hope listeners don’t depart right now with the setup. I honestly think storytelling is really important, and we touched on this when we talked about The Challenger Sale versus Insight Selling and how using certain language in set up makes those messages memorable.
But I like this idea for a much bigger reason. One of my favorite writers, books, thinkers is Joseph Campbell and he wrote a book called Hero with a Thousand Faces. Phenomenal piece, probably his opus, that I just absolutely love, and I got to the book after Reading Power of Myth, which was an interview that Joseph Campbell did, and I think our society has lost that depth of storytelling.
When we have sitcoms and you have problem resolution in 20 minutes with a few commercials thrown in, it’s not very compelling and it’s very formulaic, but I think if you’re telling a great story, and we know this from literature and we’ve talked about how much people read or don’t read, it is the story and the story structure, the protagonists, and the antagonists, and overcoming obstacles that just sucks us in, and there’s only a few Pulitzer prize winners every year because it is really hard to tell a great story.
So, I want to delve into this because I think there’s a lot of room for improvement, a lot of low hanging fruit that tells such a better story than most professional services firms tell by just throwing up some data points. So, I’m looking forward to this. I think people are really going to get a lot of value out of this conversation.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, I come at this from a couple of angles. I mean, angle number one is you read a lot of thought leadership, I read a lot of thought leadership. We consume a lot of thinking in our daily lives, and yet I reflect on it and so little of it I actually can recall, or apply, or retain. There’s just so much that I consume, and so much that I actually forget, that I’m appalled with how little I can recall when I actually apply. And yet to your point, when I’m invested in a great story … I wrote an article about this, and the example I gave was The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel from Amazon, an Amazon series, it just drew me in and I can remember the moments, I can remember the emotions of the characters involved, I can remember intimate details of the story at various points along the journey.
It just struck me as thought leadership marketers where we tend to fall down is that we rush to share our great compelling point of view, or our best practices, or our leaders and laggards, or whatever magical insight we found in our research, or in our client work, and we’re rushing to share it, but we don’t step back to think about how we’re going to get clients to remember it and act upon it, and that’s storytelling to me. It’s how do I get the client to retain it and do something with it? So that’s the lens we try to layer on top of it. We say, “Well wait a minute.” So, that’s sort of … I guess that’s lens number one.
Lens number two, when I think about it is that we’ve done a lot of thought leadership campaigns with our clients over the years, and the thing I’ve noticed when I reflect on all of those campaigns is that, and you hear this in the content marketing community a lot, this idea of repurposing content, “Well, you’ve got this ebook book, you should repurpose it as a blog. You should repurpose it as an infographic, repurpose it as a video.”, and they’re all disparate separate assets that have very limited relationship to each other, meaning that, yes, they’re all connected, they’re different derivatives of the same idea, but they’re not told in a story arc. They’re not sequenced together in any logical way.
The analogy I used in my article was that thought leadership campaigns look more like Amazon radio stations where you can basically turn the station on and it can randomize the songs in any order and they all fit in the same genre, but then they don’t follow any logical sequence. Whereas, an Amazon series, like the series I described, is obviously a story following a logical sequence. I would argue that’s thought leadership marketers need to go, is they need to say, “Well this idea of repurposing content is garbage. That’s a garbage idea. The idea should be what is the arc of the story that I’m trying to lead my client through, and what are the various content assets? What are the various chapters in episodes in that story that are going to get them where I want them to be in terms of understanding the concepts, retaining them, applying them, and ultimately than engaging with us?”
That’s the two lenses that were at hit me, I guess over the last three or four months, and we’ve started delving into this more, and starting to apply it to our client work more rigidly … not rigidly, more-
Jeff McKay: Strategically?
Jason Mlicki: … more frequently. Strategically, yeah. I mean, we’ve talked about storytelling on the side for a couple of years, but this was the first we’ve kind of said, “Well wait a minute, this should be part of our framework.”
Jeff McKay: Let’s jump in and start talking about these story types that you’re using.
Jason Mlicki: We pulled from a book called The Seven Basic Plots by a guy named Christopher Booker. I always want to call him Cory Booker, we all know he’s a different guy. Wish it was by Cory Booker, that guy’s done everything else, right? So we pulled from something called The Seven Basic Plots, which is been around the marketing community for awhile, so this is not like we’re the first ones to apply this. But what we started to do is look at this under the lens of, well there are these seven basic plots and you find them in all of the great stories that you’ve been captivated by, or enjoyed, and then we started to say, “Well how … where do we see these being applied in thought leadership? How do we apply them to thought leadership? How do we apply them in marketing a firm? How do we use them as a framework to do better work, to do more impactful work for our clients?” I mean, we can go through all seven. We can do whatever you want to do.
Jeff McKay: I want to go through all seven.
Jason Mlicki: All right. Now, I will be the first in saying that I don’t fashion myself as an expert on these seven basic plots. We’re work … certainly creating value is helping our clients think about how to apply them, really. That’s really what it comes down to, but the first plot is this notion of overcoming the monster, and we’ve used this one for a number of years in developing case stories, and it’s a fairly straight forward plot. It’s the idea that there’s this larger than life monster that’s overtaking everything, and the hero is in a battle to strike down the monster. It’s the classic David and Goliath story.
We’ve used it for years now as our number one framework for case stories. The idea that the client is facing this massive monster that is the business problem they face, it’s conventional wisdom, it’s conventional thinking inside their firm, whatever it might be. It’s the problem they’re trying to overcome, and they’re going to strike that monster down through their strength and courage, and we always like to say that the firm, the consulting firm per se, is not the protagonist in the story, the client’s the protagonist, that the firm is more like the sword, they’re more like the resource, they’re the courage that gave the client the ability to strike it down.
We use that framework a lot in case story development. We use it a lot whenever we are developing thought leadership where we’re trying to attack conventional wisdom, so conventional belief systems. So, the market thinks this way and we want them to think a different way, so we’ll use it as a framework to tell stories around that.
Jeff McKay: You said something that struck me as one of the fatal flaws of most thought leadership, and it’s that the client is the hero.
Jason Mlicki: Correct, always.
Jeff McKay: Most firms make their firm the hero, but it really is the client who gets to play the part of the hero, and I think that’s probably where firms go off the trail right out of the gate, because our egos get in the way of how we tell the story. But just that one change will make a huge difference in how thought leadership resonates with your clients.
Jason Mlicki: It’s so interesting too because Bob Buday, I have thought about this for years, but just this idea that clients don’t want their stories to be told, and that’s kind of true, mostly not in my experience. It’s kind of true. Yeah, they don’t want to expose to the world all their mistakes and all their warts. But yeah, they do want to tell the world about how they are doing things exceptionally well, and how they’ve overcome challenges as organizations.
It’s funny, we use the word case story, we try to coach our clients, it’s a case story not a case study, and the reason we do that is to get them to change the tense … to change it from, “Let’s talk about how great we are and all the great things we did for this client that was completely dysfunctional.”, to, “Hey, this is a client that’s working through these challenges and it’s their story to be told, not ours. We’re just the lever that helped them get there.” Some of our clients buy into that, some of them don’t. They literally will go through a proposal or a document and they’ll strike out all the times we’ve mentioned story and replace it with study.
Jeff McKay: That just perfectly illustrates that kind of nonfiction fiction perspective. It’s all data, it’s all factual, versus something softer. I mean studying just sounds academic and business like, and story just seems too soft. As I was reading your articles on this, the overcoming the monster is very much at the heart of the BS of PS at professional services. I mean, the monster is that culture that gets in the way of healthy growth and building a legacy firm, because as human behavior just manifests itself in a very negative way, but the BS of PS is very much the overcoming the monster storyline.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, and you’re right, and essentially you’re applying that story archetype to your own thought leadership, because you’re telling all kinds of stories around that.
Jeff McKay: That’s a Prudent Pedal example, but who does this well? Who’s using the overcoming the monster well?
Jason Mlicki: Well, the one example I use a lot is Deloitte did a case story around their work with Yamaha years ago around enabling the customer service function of Yamaha using a variety of different processes and approaches and technologies. It’s really one of the best case stories I’ve ever seen produced, and the reason that it’s so well done is because it strikes to the heart of the challenge. What is the challenge that Yamaha was facing? What is the monster that’s holding them back from being successful in the customer service function of their organization, and then how do they enable tools, detect technologies and processes to overcome them? What’s really elegant about the whole thing, that we’ve used it as a reference point many times, is just that Deloitte never puts themselves front and center in the whole thing. They’re always off to the side. It’s very clear that they were the advisor, but they’re not grabbing the limelight. So, that’s an example we’ve used a lot.
Jeff McKay: So the overcoming the monster is very much … I would think is kind of a standard thought leadership approach, or an easy one, maybe an easy one, because the client is the hero and the monster more often than not is some competitive situation that the client is in, whether it’s a competitor that they’re fighting against, or a complete change in the market in which they’re playing, whether that’s from the ’80s American car makers being out produced in terms of quality by the Japanese, or the ’90s and the advent of the Internet, and the bricks and mortar versus the click companies and how are they adjusting to attack that monster. So, I think that one is relatively straight forward and pretty standard. Should we move on to the next one?
Jason Mlicki: Sure. The next one is rags to riches, and of course it’s the classic story of someone coming from a place of not much success to a place of great success. It’s the Cinderella story. It’s Annie. It’s Aladdin. It’s any one of those stories. One of the interesting things about this archetype in general is the idea that you want the protagonists to feel some success, and then have a failure and then find success again. So if you think about those stories, that’s usually how they play out.
Jeff McKay: Sounds like a romantic comedy.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, I mean, it kind of does.
Jeff McKay: Meet the girl … boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I mean, we’ve seen our clients apply this framework also for case stories a lot. Just the idea of anytime you can show demonstrable gains, significant gains from a place of relative weakness to a place of extreme strength, obviously it’s a great framework to use to tell those types of stories. L.E.K. has done that with a number of their case stories very, very well where they talk about accelerating massive amounts of growth over decades of time with certain client relationships and how they did that, or how they were a partner in doing that.
Jeff McKay: I like this story from a thought leadership perspective because it essentially says that, “We had a problem, we overcame that problem, but we rested on our laurels, and the problem came back again. So we learned, but we didn’t learn exactly what it was we were supposed to learn, but we had the grit and tenacity, and one would even say humility to say we have to learn again and keep going.” To me, this is a story arc of most successful companies is, you have success, you plateau, others catch up with you, you have to adjust, and that process never ends.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, it’s funny, like you said, I always like to think about growth like a pumping heart. So, there’s this …. one of the fallacies when you get a strategic plan from a firm, and they’re projecting straight line 15% growth for eight straight years or something. I always laugh because I’m like, “It’s just never going to play out that way.” It’s going to play out like a pumping heart. You pump the heart, it grows 30%, and then it declines 5%, and then you pump it again and it goes 20%, and then it goes flat. In my experience, that’s how growth tends to happen, it tends to go in spurts and starts.
The same is true of knowledge development, and like you just said, you solve the problem and then it comes back in a different form and it looks different, and now you have to solve it again. It’s difficult to tell these types of stories is because they’re long arching. We’ve done this in some of our client case stories where you try to follow … lead the client through this journey of discovery, and how our client actually went through that journey of discovery, and it’s hard for them to follow it, and it’s hard for them to stay engaged through the whole journey because they only relate to certain ports … that they may only relate to step one of the journey, and they won’t relate to step three or four yet.
Jeff McKay: It’s almost like a biography-
Jason Mlicki: Yeah.
Jeff McKay: … because it plays out over such a long time. What I really like about this story and the way you articulated it in your blog posts is there’s learning along the way, but it’s the concept of the struggle, the overcoming. I used … I don’t know if I would refer to it as rags to riches, but I shared in a piece the struggles and the learning that I went through as a CMO and the piece is called The 20 Biggest Brand Mistakes Firms Make and How to Avoid Them, and I know the 20 biggest brand mistakes because I made them all.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, because I made them all, yeah.
Jeff McKay: I made them all, and it was really hard to admit that. To say, “Oh gosh, I wish I knew then what I know now.”, but you have to have some courage to share this story, because you have to be vulnerable. But to me it’s the most relatable when you see stories of entrepreneurial success, or firms having success, failing and reinventing themselves and coming back. That to me is a shot of encouragement in the arm and it says, “Oh man, I’m not competing against some perfect hero, but that that person is a lot like me and if they made it, I can make it too.”
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, you’re right. I mean, that archetype I find is a great one to apply to just corporate brand stories in general. So, when you’re telling the backstory of a company or the backstory of a firm, assuming that that exists, that sort of classic tech company comes out of a garage type of story, where there’s this notion that it was the Midas touch that the founder, everything they touched turned to gold, but usually there was these incredible moments along the way where almost everything failed. Everything almost went off the rails, and something enabled them to get through and find their way forward, and those are the really interesting stories. I think that when organizations tell them they’re more likely to get just sort of buy-in from the client. The client is … they can relate to that story, “Oh my gosh, you guys went through that as a company. That’s really interesting to know. It’s really interesting to understand.”
Jeff McKay: You’ve alluded to this, but you haven’t … I don’t think you’ve said it expressly, and maybe now is a good time to say it is we’re talking about using thought leadership, our stories in thought leadership, but there really are … which is marketing if you will, but there really is a brand story story type. There is a thought leadership marketing take your message to market story type, and I would say there’s even a very one-on-one type of story type that happens at sales when we’re talking one-on-one with the client and there needs to continuity across all three of those. But this … your concept really applies at all three of those levels.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, I totally agree. In fact, when we first published this lending it to thought leadership felt a little too narrow, but then I didn’t really like the idea of it being so broad that we’re saying, “Well, you apply this to branding, you apply this to whatever.” So we sort of narrowed it in. I maintain you can apply any one of these archetypes too narrowly to any thought leadership campaign you might run, but to your point they really come out in really strong ways in other areas of the practice.
I know we’ve alluded to The Challenger Sale a couple of times, and buried in the book, The Challenger Sale, they actually put in there the arc of a teaching pitch, I think is what they call it, where it’s essentially an example of the presentation that a sales rep might take to educate a client in a one-on-one session, but what I loved about that, they don’t use necessarily the archetypes, but they literally focus on the emotional state you want the client to be in as you go through this pitch, and it’s the same idea. It’s the idea of being aware and recognizing that the client has an emotional state that’s tied to their buying journey, and you can … if you understand that you can speak to it, and you can work with it more effectively, and they do that really, really well in that section of the book. He’s sort of giving you a roadmap on how to do that in a one-on-one setting, as you just alluded.
Jeff McKay: I like that.
Jason Mlicki: We’re short on time for this episode, what my suggestion would be, we’ve got five more plots to cover, so five more archetypes, why don’t we cover one and then we’ll call it a day, and we’ll come back another time and do the last four. Does that sound good to you?
Jeff McKay: Sounds like a plan.
Jason Mlicki: All right, so the third basic plot as Christopher Booker describes it is the quest, and this is sort of that fairly obvious one. It’s the notion that the hero is on a quest. They’re on a journey to access an object to accomplish something meaningful. The best example for me is obviously the Lord of the Rings. The hobbit is literally on a quest to deliver the ring back into the fires of Mordor. So, the whole story is this journey to accomplish this very specific task. And to your point, for us, we’ve applied that framework with a lot of success in developing point of view for a firm.
So it’s this notion of what is the big compelling world issue that you’re trying to solve as a firm? What is it that you’re on a quest to do as a firm that is the guiding light that governs everything that you do, how you do it, and why you do it? So we’ve used that, in fact, we use that exact framework when we’re developing corporate messaging with clients. We will literally have that conversation with them, ask them those types of questions to say, “What is it that your clients continually get wrong that you’re trying to help change over, and over, and over again? What is the one thing that you want to … if after 30 years in practice you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?”, and that becomes sort of the essence of the quest.
One of our clients, you know them you’ve worked with them, is TBM Consulting, and the quest model is the backbone of their point of view as a firm. Their point of view is that speed wins, is that speed is going to beat strategy, speed is going to beat really anything that they feel strongly, if they can make their clients faster, they will make their clients grow faster, more successful, more competitive, all those things, and so they’re just all in this endless quest that never really ends, to bring more and more speed to every client they work with. So, it’s sort of … we’ve just found it to be a really great archetype to use to really find a compelling point of view for many of our clients.
Jeff McKay: I really like this one. In many ways it pulls in the other story types, and this is the one that probably is most aligned with where I’ve studied this, and in Joseph Campbell and The Hero of a Thousand Faces, and there are some things that Campbell talks about in his book … I may butcher these cause it’s been awhile since I’ve read them, but it really stood out to me, and it’s so consistent with the client as hero, and the first step was kind of the call to the adventure, to the quest, and you talked about the Lord of the Rings and how that here we are in the Shire and we’re very happy, but-
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, life is good, and all of a sudden I’m being asked to do what?
Jeff McKay: Yeah, I’m sorry, but you have to go. What do you mean me? There’s millions of other people that can do that.
Jason Mlicki: I’m not doing that.
Jeff McKay: Right, which is the second step of the hero’s journey is the refusal or the reluctance to go on the quest. I’m not going, I don’t want to go. I’m the wrong person, don’t send me, I don’t want to go. I think our clients kind of follow that trajectory. You’ve got a problem, but I don’t want to see the problem. I don’t want to deal with the problem. Why do I have to put my career on the risk to tackle this problem? So there’s a reluctance to put … stick their head up out of the foxhole, if you will.
But the element, and you see this in your example of Lord of the Rings, is supernatural aid. When you least expect it, it appears, or the hero has been given some odd tool, I think in Lord of the Rings it was the sword that lit up when orcs were around, there were some-
Jason Mlicki: You remember the story better than I do, I don’t remember it that well.
Jeff McKay: Yeah, some other armor that had a certain protection factor to it, but I mean, when you go back and you look at Greek mythology, whether it’s Perseus, or Odysseus, or Hercules or whatever, there’s always some intervention by a recalcitrant God who comes out and helps them, and I think in terms of storytelling that’s where a firm can interject themselves as that supernatural aid to give the hero their tool to continue the quest.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, that’s a really great point. I wasn’t sure where you were going there for a little while, but the interesting thing about … I was thinking to myself, I’m like, “In this world of fiction the light sword appears, but does that really happen in the real world?” But what I like about it is that, there are times I think firms believe that the client discovered the problem, picked up the phone, called them to solve it, and that was the totality of the experience, when that’s not usually the case. Usually the case is like you said, the client discovered the problem and then they struggled through it for a really long time. They worked at it for a really long time, and they kept getting more and more frustrated as they couldn’t seem to unlock the solution, and then eventually the firm appears, and the firm is the sword that lights up that illuminates the problem, and how to solve it and then it gets solved.
So, I like the way you framed it. So on that note, let’s take a wrap and we will … when we get back together next time we will dive into the remaining four archetypes and their application to marketing the firm, and then in the meantime, I would just encourage listeners just to take a moment to go to this particular article on the seven basic plots, and how they’re applied to thought leadership marketing and professional services marketing as a reference, and you can use that as we talk them through in the next episode. So, thanks for going on this journey with me, Jeff.
Jeff McKay: On this quest?
Jason Mlicki: Yes, this quest. Is it right?
Jeff McKay: This hero’s journey?
Jason Mlicki: I don’t know. All right, I’ll talk to you next time.
Jeff McKay: See you buddy.